Of course, the most famous - deservedly! - of such films is The Wicker Man, which dealt with a conservative Christian police officer from the mainland who travels to one of those quaint little isles off the English coast and finds the place full of old-fashioned paganism. Christopher Lee starred in that gem, as well as The Devil Rides Out, adapted from the Dennis Wheatley novel, which came out two years after the film we're discussing here. The Devil Rides Out deals more overtly with Satanism than just plain nature-worshipping paganism, but the effect is the same.
In The Witches, Gwen Mayfield (Joan Fontaine) is a teacher who (as the film begins) finds herself in dire straits somewhere in Africa. Although we do not see her being molested by the witch doctors who threaten her, we receive the information that her ordeal has taken a toll on her psychological health; nevertheless she is offered the position of schoolteacher in a small English town and she quickly accepts. Naturally, All Is Not As It Seems, as Ms. Mayfield at first finds her new job and home simply too good to be true. People are vaguely afraid of Things They Must Not Name, some rather voodoo-like dolls are seen about, and a certain beautiful young girl is kept apart from her boyfriend so that her virginity remains intact. Ms. Mayfield of course investigates and finds herself getting into something she can't quite comprehend, and finds her own life in danger as well.
It's all rather predictable - I found myself recognizing several clues and plot points as they were being introduced; but as long as the rest of the film is good, I can certainly forgive it (at least, in older movies - in newer ones it just makes me roll my eyes and want to throw something at the screen). The film is also rather old-fashioned, in the way that most British films of the 1960's - horror or not - were kind of quaint and comfortable affairs. Naturally, I like old-fashioned horror movies, in the mode of the Hammer films or the older foreign offerings like Mill of the Stone Women or La Maldición de la Llorona (aka Curse of the Crying Woman). Certainly such things won't appeal to modern, younger audiences, at least those not hip to cool older films; but - who cares?
The Witches was entertaining enough, and I wish we had more films that delved into supernatural goings-on the way this one did. Hey, how about a general occult revival? During the previous one of the early 70's, we at least got some cool pop-culture items out of it all, culminating in such things as The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby.
Notes on the production: Joan Fontaine herself had purchased the rights to film the original novel on which this was based, and brought it to Hammer Studios herself. Dr. Wallace was played by the wonderful Leonard Rossiter. Martin Stephens, the young man who is kept away from the sacrificial virgin, proved himself one of the creepiest (and best!) child actors of the 1960's thanks to his roles in Village of the Damned and The Innocents. Sadly, for whatever reason, this was his last film. Where are you, Martin?